Top 10: Crossovers ahead of their time
It wasn’t until the 2007 Nissan Qashqai that the word ‘crossover’ entered mainstream motoring. But you could argue that Nissan didn’t invent the crossover at all – it simply popularised a certain type of car to the extent that they all amalgamated into a recognised genre.
There were genre-bending 4x4-type cars that served perfectly well as family runabouts long before the Qashqai came – and that now seem ahead of their time. Here are our favourite ten.
The car some call the original crossover, the Matra Rancho was 1977’s Skoda Yeti. It could be specified with six seats, came with plastic body paneling and wheel arches, plus had up to four additional front-mounted mesh-covered spotlights. It looked every inch the mountain conquering off-road beast.
It wasn’t. It was a front-wheel Simca van with a box on the back that came with a rough 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with 80hp. All off-road show and no actually ability…yep, it’s a crossover alright.
Not only a precursor to the crossover segment, but specifically the compact crossover segment that’s wildly popular these days – the Suzuki Ignis was a hatchback masquerading as a tiny-but-tall 4x4 way back in 2001.
That’s nine years before the Nissan Juke would come along and make European manufacturers fall over themselves to make similar – see Ford Ecosport, Vauxhall Mokka, Renault Captur and Peugeot 2008 for details.
Very like what Nissan would come up with only a year or two later, in 2005 Dodge unveiled a five-door hatchback that included very obvious SUV elements.
The tall body and chunky styling made the Dodge Caliber look less like a traditional family hatchback and more like a 4x4. Despite it having no off-road capability whatsoever, it appealed to those looking for something a bit more macho from their family runabout. And who liked lots of cheap plastic interiors.
Built on the platform of a small hatchback with rugged SUV-style looks. Available in front-wheel drive or four-wheel drive and marketed specifically at hip young urban types…
This could be a description of all manner of compact crossovers today. But it’s not, it’s 1999’s Honda HR-V. The ‘joy machine’, as the old TV adverts put it and a bit of a pioneer as it turns out.
A lot like the Toyota RAV4, the Suzuki Vitara has always fulfilled the definition of what we’d now call a crossover – it’s just that it’s always been a little too rough around the edges.
The latest version is a lot more well mannered as it goes, but between 1988 and 2015, Vitara models in various forms (short wheelbase, long wheelbase, front-wheel drive, four-wheel drive) have been happily used as 4x4-style runabouts, dealing with nothing so much as a wet field.
If you wanted the sort of space that only a big boxy people carrier could provide, but with the all conquering nature of a proper 4x4, the Mitsubishi Delica was your car – it had a proper locking differential and everything.
In many ways it was the opposite of today’s crossovers, which generally look like 4x4s but are in no way capable of being one. The Delica added a good dose of usability – and coolness – to the people carrier.
Take one car that combines a family hatchback and an MPV, then make it a bit bigger. Then combine that with elements of an SUV. The result is the SEAT Altea Freetrack 4, a plastic-clad four-wheel drive people carrier that’s about as crossover as they come.
Based on the bigger Altea XL, the Freetrack 4 is still as close to a production SUV that SEAT has ever come, although by 2016 the Spanish company will apparently have a ‘conventional’ crossover in the mould of the Nissan Qashqai on its books. Hopefully this one will be better and prettier.
Since 1997 Subaru has been making a taller-than-usual estate car with four-wheel drive that sits slightly awkwardly, albeit very usefully, between the estate and SUV.
That makes it a crossover, combining the sharper handling and manoeuverability of something closer to the ground, but the enhanced space, practicality and go-anywhere ability of an SUV.
The Toyota RAV4 first appeared in UK showrooms the same year that Robson & Jerome’s eponymous album shamefully topped the annual UK sales charts. But it was really the second-generation model, in 2005, that took it from utilitarian Japanese SUV into the sort of car we’d today call a crossover.
Available with three or five doors, and in front-wheel or four-wheel drive, if only the 2000 model year RAV4 had been a bit more refined – a bit more like a family hatchback – it could have been Toyota that revolutionised the family car market, rather than Nissan.
Built upon the same principle as the Mitsubishi Delica – that an MPV could benefit from some 4x4 prowess – the Scenic RX4 was more bark and less bite. While the Delica was truly capable off road, the RX4 was more like a beefed up MPV that was a little better in snow and shallow mud than its front-wheel drive namesakes.
Still, as MPVs go it was an eminently useable one, with acres of plastic cladding to protect it from car park door ding wars, a tailgate-mounted spare wheel and a split tailgate for friendly loading. Sadly, all this made it extremely heavy and therefore extremely thirsty.